On Brokenness and Becoming Whole in the New Year:
How the Jewish Community is Confronting Mental Illness and Addiction
By Rabbi Rachel Ain
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav once wrote: A certain king sent his son far away to study. The son eventually returned to the king’s palace fully versed in all the arts and sciences. One day the king told his son to take a large stone and bring it up to the top floor of the palace. But the stone was so heavy that the prince could not even lift it up. Eventually the king said to his son, “Did you really imagine that I meant you to do the impossible and carry the stone just as it is up there? Even with all your wisdom, how were you supposed to do such a thing? That was not what I meant. I wanted you to take a big hammer and smash the stone into little pieces. This is how you will be able to bring it up to the top floor.” The hard work of the High Holidays, is figuring out which stones need lifting, smashing, and rebuilding. It isn’t easy to smash our hearts, but we need to begin to assess why we must do this.
First, we need to show our vulnerability because sometimes, we need to be broken in order to become whole; we might be scared of what is inside and it takes incredible bravery and strength to open it up.
In fact, there is tremendous power in showing our vulnerability. Theodore Roosevelt said “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least failed while daring greatly.” During the New Year to be written into the book of life. But this doesn’t mean to just be living, physically, it means to be truly alive. To be in the arena. To be the authors of our own stories. To know there will be peaks and there will be valleys but we need to be willing to be broken into order to be rebuilt.
As we head on our journey for growth we can use the Jewish version of a GPS, by focusing on a spiritual GPS. Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. Repentance, Prayer, and Justice. Teshuvah is a process by which we reconcile our past actions with ourselves, with God, and with others, and pledge to change. After we have committed ourselves to teshuvah, we must use the next directional map that we have – the mahzor during the holidays and the siddur throughout the year – which help us with the second step, the step of tefillah, and it is the atlas of all atlas’s on our journey towards a greater spiritual self. But, our spiritual journey doesn’t end with prayer, at least not for us as Jews, because we are taught, Al tifrosh min ha’tzibur. Don’t disconnect ourselves from the community, and that is where our third element, tzedakah comes in. People often translate tzedakah loosely as charity, but I would argue that we need to look at its root word, justice, to understand that to seek out justice means to work with and for a community. To be a part of something, not apart from it. There are many ways for each of us to get involved in these issues. Whether it is confronting our own vulnerability or participating in programs that recognize all of our challenges, we can enter this new year more whole. As a congregational Rabbi, I have made the commitment to make mental health part of the conversations that we have with our congregants this year and so Sutton Place Synagogue will be hosting Dr. Sam Klagsbrun to speak about issues of anxiety and depression. Further, I am proud to be getting involved with the T’Shuvah Center, The T’Shuvah Center is a nonprofit residential center and community in New York and is a direct response to the addiction epidemic, that is steeped in Jewish values. Born out of Beit T’Shuvah Los Angeles, T’Shuvah Center follows the same mission to guide individuals and families towards a path of living well, so that wrestling souls can recover from addiction and learn how to properly heal. The T’Shuvah Center’s faith-based model, founded on authenticity and wholeness, integrates spirituality, psychotherapy, Jewish teachings, and the 12 Steps. T’Shuvah Center believes everyone has the right to redemption. In thinking about this center, I am proud that I will be attending an all day conference on October 10th, at the JCC of Manhattan where topics will be presented that offer a Jewish response to the addiction epidemic through various teachings led by experts in the field of recovery.
Our journeys aren’t easy. Whether individually or as a community. In 1853 an abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church gave a sermon where he said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
To me this is the definition of faith in the year ahead, but it isn’t pre-determined. It is hopeful. But to get it towards justice takes work. To understand that something needs to be perfect, first means to confront the idea that it isn’t yet perfect.
None of us are perfect. We aren’t striving for perfection, but we are striving towards our potential. And to do that we might need to go into our toolbox, take Rav Nahman’s hammer, to break ourselves up first, and then rebuild it, with teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka, in order that we may enter the New Year, better, more complete, more whole, if not a bit scarred.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is Rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue, New York City.